UMA gains ground at Fly-In

Operators educate legislators about need for fuel tax parity

Washington D.C. – Becky Whitmore’s timing couldn’t have been better. Her visit to Maine Sen. Angus King Jr.’s office at the Capitol coincided with his weekly coffee with constituents. That gave her some unexpected face time with him as King stepped out of his private office to be greeted by an elbow-to-elbow crowd.

When King was introduced to Whitmore, whose family owns the century-old Cyr Bus Line Inc., he seemed to feel an immediate connection.

“Are you Joe’s daughter?” asked King, who then spent a few moments regaling the circle around him with stories about his love for big vehicles, which led to him being teased that in an industry short on drivers, there was a potential job offer on the table.

“I can give you an application,” Whitmore said with a smile, drawing a laugh from King.

On her first Legislative Fly-In, Whitmore hit the ground running, making a memorable impression even before the small contingent of Maine motorcoach operators stepped into a private conference room with King’s legislative staffer to advocate for their industry.

Browse photos from the 2019 Bus & Motorcoach Industry Fly-In

The exchange was just one of many of the day’s reminders that operators have significant pull with elected leaders from their home state. More than 80 UMA members met with 150 congressional officers April 3 to educate members of Congress on the vital role private motorcoaches play, emphasizing the way they create jobs, generate tourism dollars and provide a safe, fuel-efficient, and green solution to transportation and travel.

“We work all year long on behalf of the industry but, as hired guns, we can only tell the story so many times. Who they really want to hear from are the people in their district,” said UMA President & CEO Stacy Tetschner, who accompanied members in a supporting role.


Expanded participation

The 2019 Bus & Motorcoach Industry Legislative Fly-In included 21 national and regional organizations. UMA operators were supported by representatives from industry suppliers such as ABC Companies, MCI, Prevost, United Bus Technologies and Temsa, who joined them in the meetings.

With a new Congress in place and new leadership in the House, the event provided an opportunity for operators to speak with a unified voice about the critical need to keep the partial fuel tax exemption for motorcoaches, while laying the seeds for returning to a full exemption, Tetschner noted.

Parity was a key message in advocating that motorcoach operators pay the same amount in taxes that mass transit does. If the government can’t eliminate the collective $65 million the industry pays in partial gas taxes, then mass transit should be asked to pay the same amount.

“I think they really understood when we were asking for the fuel tax to at least remain the same or go back to the parity or so it’s equal. We are mass transit. Yes we are private, but we are trying to get more people moved efficiently and effectively and safely. It’s all about getting cars off the road. The fuel efficiency per passenger mile is amazing,” said Kim Grzywacz, co-owner of CIT Signature Transportation in Iowa, who attended the Fly-In with her husband, John.

As they flowed into the state Capitol in the middle of the annual Cherry Blossom Festival and gathered inside small legislative offices—small state groups meeting with legislators or staff members from their particular districts—UMA members expressed fear the industry could lose that exemption as President Donald Trump and Congress  are searching for money to shore up the Highway Trust Fund and fund an infrastructure bill to repair the nation’s deteriorating bridges. When the exemption started out in the 1970s, during the energy crisis, Congress granted motorcoaches a full exemption from the fuel tax, but that has been eroded by subsequent Congresses.

In their meetings, operators emphasized that motorcoaches shouldn’t be lumped in with the trucking industry on this issue. Lighter buses don’t wear out the roads like big rigs do and are much safer.

“I feel like they have been very receptive,” said Rob Wicklund, president of Bemidji Bus Line in Minnesota, as he left the offices of Rep. Angie Craig. “It seems like they are very engaged. They ask a lot of questions. It hasn’t been a one-sided conversation. This is my fifth year being out there so that helped. I feel like we have gotten to know some of the staffers from over the years so there is some comfort that you have some name recognition.”


Efficient and effective

This year, there were two upgrades that helped operators be more efficient and effective during the Fly-In. Paperwork was replaced with a new app that guided members around the maze of corridors connecting the House and the Senate offices. It also made it easy to quickly complete surveys after each session.

The other upgrade was a glossy, colorful four-page brochure that explained the industry’s impact in easy-to-understand graphics. Members passed those out as they entered meetings.

This was a good year to focus on educating Congress because there weren’t any driving regulatory issues to try to change, says Ken Presley, UMA’s vice president of industry relations and chief operating officer.

“Explaining the size and scope of the industry, who we are and what we do. We had a lot of staffers say, ‘I didn’t realize that is what you did,’” Presley said.

UMA will take the information that came from the meeting debriefs and the reviews to look for opportunities to follow up with congressional members. For those who missed this session but want to attend next year, the next Fly-in will likely be in April again. The exact date depends on the calendar released by Congress at the end of the year.

First time Fly-In participant Cortez O’Neal, owner of Camelot Charters, says he’ll be back next year. He credits his first successful experience to pairing up with fellow Alabamian Alan Thrasher, president of Thrasher Brothers Trailways, for coaching him through the experience. The two attended most of their sessions together.

“I did get a lot out of it,” O’Neal shared during the wrap-up session, when members put their sore feet up on chairs and snacked as they passed a microphone and shared how their respective days went. Increasing his participation in UMA activities has paid dividends, he added.

“When you come to UMA and meet and talk with people, then you find out the things you really need to do to help your business to help yourself,” O’Neal said. “A lot of times I was cutting myself short. I’ve been doing this 19 years and I just really started getting involved. Look at all the things I missed when I could have been two steps ahead of where I am if I just would have known!”

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